Sketch: Nick's big on hand signals – but short on inspiration

 

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It says something about Nick Clegg's speech that the biggest cheer he got was when he announced that Lord Ashdown would be chairing the party's election campaign come 2015.

In fairness — to use the most overworked word in Brighton this week — this may, in fact, have less to do with the dissatisfaction with Clegg than a realisation that extreme measures may be needed to rescue the party from its dire poll ratings: the presence of a man with extensive experience in Special Forces.

In one respect Clegg was lucky; he was preceded by the party's treasurer, Sir Ian Wrigglesworth, who made some of the worst jokes of the week – which is saying something.

Halfway through his appeal for funds, he appeared to recognise this, and in doing so produced the one indisputably good reasons for donating to the Liberal Democrats: "If you think some of these jokes are dodgy, then you'll be able to afford a better speechwriter next year."

With such an easy act to follow, the party leader could hardly fail. And the delight shown in the hall at the news that the Action Man was coming back gave the Lib Dem leader the lift he needed for a decent peroration, in which he urged the party to realise how it had finally vindicated the old Liberals who stuck to the party through its darkest days and had now realised their dream of a return to power.

The problem was much of the previous 45 minutes which were, well, workmanlike rather than inspiring. His hands were extraordinarily busy, a clenched fist here to indicate determination, an index finger pointed to identify the way forward, fingers clasped together to indicate the interconnection of Lib Dem policies and arms outstretched whenever he spoke – as he frequently did – of an "open" society.

He had a real argument, which was that "working every day to keep this Government anchored in the centre ground" was greatly preferable to ripping up the Coalition Agreement and becoming a "Stop the world, I want to get off" party. For the most part he spoke in sentences, a welcome development since Tony Blair murdered the main verb and ensured its absence from a long line of political speeches, including some of Clegg's own.

But the words did not always live up to the gestures. In one audio-crazed passage he contrasted the "tinny sound of the Libertarian's freedom" and the "dead thud of the Socialist's" with the "rich sound of Liberal freedom, amplified… by the thing that gives it real meaning: opportunity". And his boast that at 42 per cent of GDP public spending is higher than it was from 1995 until the crash sits a little uneasily with Coalition complaints about Labour profligacy.

Certainly his few jokes – while less than sensational – were a lot better than Wrigglesworth's, including his no-doubt-genuine apprehension that now Ashdown is back, "I'm not quite sure I'm ready for all those urgent emails and 5am phone calls".

Clearly, however, he is ready to pay that price. Could it also mean that Ashdown's near- legendary magician-psephologist Lord (Chris) Rennard will also be brought back to his election SWAT team?

The "biggest chart sensation to come out of Sheffield since the Human League" (as president Tim Farron had described him in one of the mercifully few references yesterday to Clegg's tuition apology) was always going to have his work cut out. Times are hard for the Lib Dems, as for the country. Sensible as it no doubt was to make that apology last week, it meant that the conference had peaked before it even started.

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